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August 14, 2013

Russell solidifies starting spot

Brian Kelly ended any cornerback debate on Monday.

KeiVarae Russell started all 13 games last season, his first, after making the move from offense two days before fall camp started. He finished fifth on the team in total tackles (58) and grabbed two interceptions.

Despite that freshman All-American season, Russell still had to hold off Lo Wood to keep his starting job after the senior had returned from the ruptured Achilles tendon that put Russell into the lineup in the first place. Turns out, Russell will stay there.

“There’s no competition there other than the day-to-day competition,” Kelly said. “KeiVarae is our starter. Lo is doing a great job. He’s physically fit, he’s had no ill effects of his injuries. He’s competing hard, but KeiVarae is the starter.”

A year ago Russell was a freshman trying to absorb a new position in time to shore up depth issues after Wood was lost for the season. Russell beat out Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown for the job, then wound up covering elite receivers Marqise Lee and Amari Cooper.

Russell admitted there were noticeable growing pains and chances to lose confidence, but he ended up being named at freshman All-American. Russell carried more than just his trademark confidence into the offseason. He now had experience.

“The year of experience really helped me out as far as building confidence and building that mindset that I can play against anybody,” Russell said. “Now I’m just taking that step to being a great player. Instead of just being an elite player I’ve gotta try to take myself to being great.”

Doing so involved long film sessions and individual attention to footwork and other fine details. Russell also packed on more muscle, moving from 178 pounds in the national championship game to around 190 at the beginning of this fall camp.

Russell is over the mental difficulties of changing positions. He’s moved on to skill development and matching technical refinements with the confidence instilled in him since grade school.

“Now going into this (camp) I knew I had a whole year of experience,” Russell said. “I knew I was playing corner. I just switched from boundary to field, but that’s not that big of a transition. I worked in the offseason on all of my footwork and everything, my mechanics of playing corner, so now going into camp I was a lot more confident, a lot more skilled at my position.”

Seeing those improvements helped Kelly publicly back Russell’s position as a starter. Russell dismissed the notion of feeling more comfortable or confident as a result, but noted the benefits of such a designation.

“You wanna be the starter, of course,” he said. “It’s a different feeling. No matter if there’s a rotation or not you wanna say you started. I’m not even gonna lie about that one. When somebody asks if you’re gonna play it’s a different feeling of ‘Yeah, I’m gonna play,’ or, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna start.’ It’s a different feeling. It’s a different mindset of how you study film and everything as a starter. It changed everything.”

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